Why being born with one hand hasn't stopped me becoming a concert pianist

Many people told Nicholas McCarthy he would never become a pianist with just one hand. He tells to Sarah Freeman why he proved them all wrong.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 1st June 2016, 4:39 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st June 2016, 6:38 pm
Nicholas McCarthy, who has become an acclaimed concert pianist despite being born with one hand.
Nicholas McCarthy, who has become an acclaimed concert pianist despite being born with one hand.

Nicholas McCarthy has grown used to the looks of disbelief when people discover what it is he does for a living. He is a pianist who has played on the same bill as Coldplay and whose debut album went to number four in the classical charts. He also happens to just have one hand.

“When I tell people that I’m a pianist they nod with interest and then they look down and see my right hand is missing. That’s when the questions really start.”

There is a lot to tell. While there is a photograph of Nicholas as a youngster playing with a keyboard, he wasn’t from a particularly musical family and grew up instead dreaming of being a chef.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

“Given I had been born without a right hand that was also a pretty dextrous profession to choose, but I loved food and reckoned there would be some way around it. I would have no doubt gone on to catering college had it not be for one afternoon in school when I heard a friend of mine play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata. I was mesmerised. It was just one of those moments which changed everything.”

Nicholas was 14 years old and he returned home that evening with a new ambition. He was not just going to learn to play the piano, but he was going to learn to play as well as his friend.

“I’m not sure my parents believed me and they certainly weren’t going to splash out on a grand piano, but they did buy me a keyboard. I took it up to my bedroom and I began to teach myself.

“I was pretty much a man obsessed and after a few months I remember my dad shouting up the stairs, asking me to turn the radio down. I shouted back, ‘Dad it’s not the radio, it’s me’. He couldn’t believe it. Our family had never really listened to classical music, but I just seemed to soak it up like a sponge.”

His progress was impressive, but after a few months Nicholas, who performs at Leeds College of Music on June 15, knew that he would need some outside help if he was to reach the next level.

“We found a tutor pretty quickly, although I do feel a little guilty when I look back that I completely forgot to mention that I only had one hand. She was understandably a little taken aback when we first met, but she was also young, massively enthusiastic and if she had any doubts about taking me on, she didn’t show it.”

Having been brought up to believe that anything was possible, Nicholas assumed that if he could play well enough he would be able to secure a place at a specialist music school. However, before he turned 16 he received the first of a number of knock-backs.

“I knew I could play so I assumed I would at least be given a chance. I was wrong. The head of a school close to my home in Surrey pretty much told me that I might as well not bother auditioning because I would never have a future in music.

“When I hung up the phone, I took it very badly. I was 15 years old and at that age if life hits a dead end you think that’s it, but of course there are other options, other routes that can be taken.”

Nicholas did find another route and successfully audition for the Junior Guildhall School of Music and later won a place at the Royal College of Music. It was there his musical education really began, but even amongst his tutors there were doubts that he had a credible future on the professional circuit.

“I guess I’ve always had more belief in me than anyone else has. What really helped was discovering that there is a huge repertoire of works written for left-handed pianists. That’s partly down to an Austrian composer called Paul Wittgenstein who had to have his right-arm amputated after the First World War.”

During his recovery in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp, Wittgenstein grew determined to play on and wrote to his old teacher asking him to devise a concerto for the left hand. The piece was soon completed and having devised a series of techniques, including pedal and hand-movement combinations, that allowed him to play chords previously regarded as impossible for a five-fingered pianist, Wittgenstein played his first concert as a one-handed pianist.

The reviews were such that the likes of Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev and Richard Strauss all produced pieces for him and Nicholas says there are now more than 3,000 works written exclusively for left-handed pianists.

“If I’d been born with just a right hand I’m not sure what I would have done, so in many ways I feel very lucky. Honestly there is a lifetime worth of works, there is no danger that I will ever run out of things to play.”

In August 2012, Nicholas became the first one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music. Within weeks he had the kind of break many musicians spend their careers waiting for when he was asked to perform in the closing ceremony of the Paralympics alongside Coldplay.

“There couldn’t have been a better platform in terms of raising my profile,” he says. “There I was on stage playing in front of thousands of people, it was just surreal.”

That performance helped secure Nicholas a record deal with Warner Classics and his debut album, appropriately entitled Solo, reached number four in the classical charts when it was released last year.

“I remember getting the call from the record company to say my album was in the top 10. That was just an incredible feeling. You hope that there is an audience for what you do, but until you put a record out and ask people to buy it, you’re never absolutely sure.

“Setting out to be a pianists wasn’t the obvious choice for someone with one hand, but I hope that my story makes people realise that if you do one thing in life it should be to follow your dreams.”